WASHINGTON (AP) _ The nation's health secretary insisted to skeptical senators Wednesday that federal doctors are ready to combat any bioterrorist attack _ even as he urged Americans to be on the lookout for mysterious symptoms and see a physician promptly if they have any.
Worried senators asked Congress to allocate $1.4 billion to improve the nation's health system against bioterrorism _ a six-fold increase.
``The threat is real. The overall probability is low ... yet it's increasing,'' said Sen. Bill Frist, R-Tenn., who introduced the spending bill along with Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass.
A surgeon, Frist warned that many of his fellow doctors wouldn't recognize symptoms of anthrax or other bioterror agents in time to save sufferers or, for contagious diseases like smallpox, contain an outbreak. Thus, most of the money would be used to improve city, county and state preparedness.
Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson acknowledged there are gaps, saying he has asked the Bush administration for $800 million, most to be sent to local and state public health systems.
Not only do front-line doctors and nurses need training, but local health departments should be linked to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's early-warning computer system that flags unusual clusters of illnesses around the country, he said. Thompson also wants at least one CDC-trained outbreak specialist stationed in every state; currently, 13 states lack them.
Despite those gaps, ``people should not be scared into believing they need to buy gas masks. And people should not be frightened into hoarding medicine and food,'' Thompson stressed.
He said 400 tons of medical supplies, including vaccines and antibiotics, are stocked at eight secret sites around the country that can be shipped within 12 hours anywhere they are needed, and that he hopes to purchase 100 more tons.
But at a Senate Appropriations subcommittee hearing Wednesday, several senators chided Thompson for downplaying the threat.
``I am absolutely assured we could respond to any contingency,'' Thompson insisted.
``I just don't believe that,'' responded Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., who cautioned against misleading the public.
What should people do to guard their health, asked Sen. Herbert Kohl, D-Wisc.
``Be very vigilant about your activities and anything suspicious,'' Thompson responded. ``Anything mysterious dealing with your body, get to a doctor ... and ask if their doctor knows anything about bioterrorism.''
He outlined additional steps federal health agencies are taking. They include:
_Production of anthrax vaccine for the military, stalled because manufacturer Bioport Inc. has failed to meet Food and Drug Administration safety requirements, could resume within six weeks. Civilians do not need anthrax vaccination unless an attack were to occur, and none is available for them, Thompson said.
_Some 15.4 million doses of smallpox vaccine are stockpiled, and 40 million more on order will arrive by late next year instead of in 2005.
_Dr. D.A. Henderson of Johns Hopkins University, renowned for his role in wiping out smallpox in 1977, will head a new commission advising the government's bioterrorism preparedness.
_HHS will hold an annual training conference to teach local emergency workers how to identify and treat biowarfare agents.
But a Denver emergency medicine specialist challenged Thompson's preparedness assertions.
Hospitals simply couldn't handle a sudden influx of sick patients ``without degenerating into chaos,'' Dr. Stephen Cantrill of the Denver Health Medical Center testified Wednesday. He cited a bioterrorism training drill last year that failed to stop a simulated plague outbreak.
Lawmakers in the House heard similar concerns Wednesday. The nation especially needs to develop speedy tests to identify the present of biological agents in a person's body, Dr. Tara O'Toole, a biological weapons expert on the Pentagon's Defense Science Board, told the House Subcommittee on Terrorism and Homeland Security. Many early symptoms of anthrax, smallpox or plague can resemble ordinary illnesses like the flu.
And the House Energy Committee passed, by voice vote, legislation that would outlaw anyone possessing or transporting biological agents unless they were registered with the government, to ensure dangerous microbes are handled only by legitimate scientists.